As we approach the centenary of the end of the First World War, the conflict still remains in the British public’s consciousness. The statistics remain staggering: 8.7 million men from Britain and the Empire contingents served in the British army, of which almost a million lost their lives. These men had families and loved ones back home. Letters were sent back and forth to the front, some of which we are fortunate enough to still have access today. Stored in Archives+, Manchester Central Library, are documents which ring home the reality of the conflict on the families of fallen soldiers.
One of the fallen was Hermon Hodge, a textile worker from Ashton-Under Lyne. He served as a Lance Corporal in the 17th Service Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers (1st South East Lancashire) Regiment, originally a Bantam Battalion consisting of men who had been under the original 5’3 requirement in 1914 but were still fighting fit . On the 1st June 1918 his battalion took park in an attack at Aveluy Wood, just North West of Amiens. During the fighting Hermon went missing. It was unknown if he had been killed or taken prisoner. His army Chaplain wrote to his mother, telling her he was ‘deeply sorry’ about Hermon who he regarded as ‘a very good fellow and a loss to the battalion’. Hermon regularly attended the Chaplain’s services, in fact he ‘made his communion the very evening he went up in to the line before the engagement’. As Hermon was declared missing there was a great deal of uncertainty as to what happened to him in the chaos of the engagement. The Chaplain said to his mother ‘this will be a very anxious time for you and I am deeply sorry and ask you to accept my sympathy, though fear no words of mine can be much consolation. May God our good father give you the strength to be brave and patient while waiting for news.’ The Hodge family had an agonising wait for news of their son. The Chaplain attempted to comfort Mrs Hodge by writing ‘he does not appear to have been wounded so seems most likely to be safe in German hands’. However, this was not the case.
During battles, many thousands of prisoners could be taken, and they would be transported miles away from the conflict zone. The belligerent nations provided lists to the International Committee of the Red Cross. They visited camps and hospitals on both sides and sent news back to soldier’s families at home. Unfortunately they could not locate Hermon. A letter from the Red Cross stated: ‘we regret to say notwithstanding constant and careful enquiries, we never succeeded in hearing of Lance Corporal Hermon Hodge’ . The Red Cross interviewed the men of his unit, English hospitals, military camps and released prisoners, none of which ‘threw any light on his casualty’. Hermon was one of the 526,816 missing of the First World War.
With the use of the resources of the Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society at Manchester Central Library I was able to track down what happened in Hermon’s final actions. At 3:25am on the 1st of June 1918 the 17th Lancashire Fusiliers were involved in a night attack on the western edge of Aveluy Wood . Under a cover of barrage fire from heavy artillery, and supported by machine guns they managed to take their objective. However, a heavy counter attack forced them back to their own front line. Nevertheless, the raid was recorded as a success due to heavy enemy casualties, prisoners taken and machine guns captured from the Germans. In total there were 88 British casualties, including Hermon and 12 others declared missing in action.
After the end of war the Imperial War Graves Commission was set up to commemorate the fallen of the Great War. Grave registration units were posted in the former battlefields and no man’s land to locate soldiers’ remains. Soldiers were often buried by their comrades in impromptu burial sites, sometimes simply where they had died. It would seem that a body believed to be Hermon was buried at Martinsart British Cemetery, just west of Aveluy Wood. The sandstone memorial headstone, which marks the spot today, has ‘believed to be buried in this cemetery’ inscribed on the top, as it seems that Hermon’s grave marker was damaged or lost in subsequent fighting after his remains were buried, but is thought to most likely be in that site.
The letter to Mrs Hodge ends with a request from the army Chaplain, ‘if you should have a spare photo of your son I should greatly like to have it, we were very good friends’. Thanks to a donation from Hermon’s ancestor his photo has been immortalised in the Documentary Photographic Archive (DPA) collection at Archives+. The original is still available to see today at Tameside Local Studies.
Resources used in my research:
1911 England Census, Ancestry.co.uk, p.770 Free access in Manchester Libraries
GB124.DPA/961/12 GMLives.co.uk Archive catalogue
17th Service (1st South East Lancs) Lancashire Fusiliers War Diary, Ancestry.co.uk, p. 174.